The health benefits of mindfulness meditation
The following is the first in the Block Island Health Services Community Health Outreach Series.
The pace and pressures of daily life can place excessive demands on our time, attention, and even our health. As our responsibilities multiply it becomes increasingly difficult to stay connected to the present moment and to be truly in tune with our physical and emotional well-being. Whereas the mechanisms responsible for stress in the body were optimal for alerting our ancestors to fight or run when their lives were in immediate danger, the stressors of modern society can cause this “fight or flight” response to stay persistently active at a low level, which in turn can suppress the immune system and contribute to ailments such as depression, anxiety, impaired concentration, poor sleep, high blood pressure and chronic pain.
Confronted with an increasingly stressed population, modern medicine has made great strides when it comes to alleviating the symptoms of these conditions. However, one of the most powerful tools we have when it comes to our health is one that until recently had been widely overlooked by mainstream medicine: the ability to harness the mind-body connection and to facilitate the body’s inherent capacity to heal itself from within. One way to do this is through the practice of mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness meditation is an ancient practice that emphasizes focusing one’s attention on the present moment. Whether you take ten minutes out of your day to quietly focus on your own breathing or you carefully notice how each part of your body feels before drifting off to sleep at night, engaging in regular meditation can boost your health without the burden of cost, side effects or equipment. In fact, many forms of meditation require only the four following elements: a quiet location, a comfortable posture, a focus of your attention on words, objects or sensations and an open attitude that allows distractions to come and go naturally without judgment.
Even though meditation predates many of our modern medical therapies, scientific research has only recently begun to corroborate what practitioners of meditation long knew to be true regarding its ability to promote physiological balance and to enhance overall health and well-being. There are numerous studies that demonstrate that meditation alone can yield moderate improvements in depression and anxiety, boost self-esteem, improve sleep and help with focus. Anecdotal reports of schools that have replaced detention with meditation classes show a drastic reduction in suspensions and disciplinary action, likely due to the honing of self-soothing and attentional skills among the children.
And the benefits of meditation extend beyond the psychological realm. Several studies show meditation to be as effective as pharmaceuticals in the treatment of chronic back pain. These studies also suggest that in individuals with chronic pain, meditation is better than pain-killers at improving quality of life and in providing lasting benefits long after the intervention is complete, thereby reducing the need for prescription medications. The use of meditation as a valuable alternative to drugs is increasingly relevant as physicians and patients alike are forced to navigate the devastation of the opioid epidemic and the subsequent restrictions on prescribing these medications. There is now also compelling evidence that, when incorporated into rehabilitation programs, meditation can assist people recovering from addiction to opiates and cigarettes as well as other substances and behaviors.
Furthermore, a statement from the American Heart Association suggests that meditation may decrease the risk of heart disease. Additional studies have shown that a regular meditation practice can decrease the risk of high blood pressure. There is also evidence that meditation can reduce symptom severity in irritable bowel syndrome, and new studies illuminate how practicing meditation might also be helpful for the management of fibromyalgia, headache, PTSD and other forms of chronic disease. Even among healthy individuals or those in remission from their ailments, meditation can serve as a preventive measure to fortify the body and mind against illness and to enhance quality of life.
Given the allure of a low-cost, low-risk medical therapy, the scientific evidence on the benefits of meditation will undoubtedly continue to emerge. Yet as with any intervention, the best evidence for how effective it is for you will be based on your own personal experience. It is important to remember that meditation is a practice that one develops over time. There is no such thing as meditating badly, and any attempt to meditate is an investment in doing something kind for yourself. If you are interested in learning more about the benefits of meditation or if you would like to try it out for yourself in a friendly guided environment, feel free to peruse the resources below or join Danielle Duffy on Tuesday mornings at 11 a.m. at Elevation Studios on Spring Street for a free weekly meditation class sponsored by the Block Island Medical Center Wellness and Risk Reduction Program (suggested donation $20). For more information please call (401) 466-9648.
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Sarah Magaziner is a member of the Warren Alpert School of Medicine Class of 2019. The medical content of this article was edited by Mark Clark, MD, Medical Director, Block Island Medical Center.